Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2012
Issue No. 1109
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Battle for Aleppo

A fierce battle is raging between the Syrian regime and opposition for control of the country's second-largest city, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Women mourning at the graves of their sons, whom activists say were killed by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, in Homs; and anti-government protest in Aleppo

Fighting spread this week from the Syrian capital Damascus to the country's commercial capital Aleppo in the north on the border with Turkey, with armed opposition fighters making tangible gains against regime forces by using more advanced and powerful weapons.

Some of these included anti-aircraft weapons mounted on four-wheel drive jeeps, and such weapons have enabled opposition fighters to take control of over half the city's districts, home to some 2.5 million people.

Forces loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad have been unable to recover control, despite putting the city under siege for over ten days with 250 tanks and tens of thousands of soldiers.

In a repeat performance of tactics used elsewhere in the country, regime forces in Aleppo have used heavy artillery to bombard neighbourhoods under control of the armed opposition, but the latter insists that it will not retreat from its positions.

Revolutionary fighters have been making announcements to the effect that they are in control of areas in and around the city, and broadcast video footage has shown fighters in front of eight tanks allegedly captured in battles with the regular Syrian army.

Several western capitals have issued warnings that regime forces could commit massacres in Aleppo, and although it is unlikely that the West will go to war over Syria, it is possible that massacres in Aleppo could serve as a pretext for intervention.

US defence secretary Leon Panetta said that the Syrian regime was "digging its own grave" by attacking Aleppo and using "blind violence" against its citizens. The regime had "lost all legitimacy and the more violence it commits the closer it is to its demise," Panetta said.

The US administration also told the Syrian opposition that if al-Assad were forced to step down, it should not dismantle the regime's security and other agencies in order to avoid a scenario like that which took place in Iraq, indicating that Al-Assad's fall may be imminent.

French president Fran├žois Hollande said that France would call on the UN Security Council to intervene to prevent new massacres in Aleppo, reiterating that the only solution that could reunite Syrians was for Al-Assad to leave power and the formation of a transitional government.

Arab League Secretary-General Nabil El-Arabi described the situation in Syria as "amounting to war crimes," adding that the Syrian regime "will not be able to continue in power much longer."

"Its days are numbered," El-Arabi said. "There is no talk now of political reform. Now talk is of the transfer of power."

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that the international community "is now planning for the post-Al-Assad phase," adding that "no country in the world, influential or not, believes Al-Assad's regime will continue in power."

Robert Maude, former head of the UN monitors in Syria, also talked to the press for the first time since leaving Syria, commenting on the situation in Aleppo by saying that "the overthrow of the Syrian regime is only a matter of time, and it is using heavy military against civilians."

"Every time 15 people are killed in a village, 500 others become sympathisers, and around 100 of them become fighters. It is very possible that Al-Assad will hold out in the short term because the military capabilities of the Syrian military are superior to those of the opposition."

However, the Syrian government and its Iranian ally have rejected all talk of the regime's collapse. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim said during a visit to Tehran that his country "will defeat the universal plot against it," adding that "the armed fighters will fail just as they did in the great battle of Damascus."

His Iranian counterpart Ali Akbar Salehi noted that any notion of a transfer of power in Syria "is an illusion." The Secretary of Iran's National Security Council Said Jalili said that Tehran "is prepared to support Damascus even more than before in countering foreign pressures."

However, the scene in Damascus contradicts such assertions, since while the regime continues to bombard city districts from all directions with heavy artillery, daily battles continue on the streets and around the capital.

The security agencies have divided the city into zones, but opposition fighters continue attacks against the security forces after sundown.

Although many inside and outside Syria have warned against the possibility of massacres carried out by regime forces in Aleppo, no action has been taken on the world stage, though France has decided to go to the UN Security Council once again over the issue despite fears that Russia may once again use its veto power to block punitive measures against the Syrian regime.

The Arab bloc has also submitted a draft resolution on Syria to the UN General Assembly, aiming to create safe zones in the country and to protect civilians and to step up political and economic sanctions if such moves are not made.

Turkey has started to take tangible steps on the ground by deploying rocket batteries and armoured vehicles along its border with Syria. Observers believe that this could be a preliminary step to securing Turkey's 185km-long southern border with Syria, or a preamble for assisting the revolutionary fighters if Turkey decides to intervene in Syria on behalf of NATO.

Aleppo is important not only because it is the second-largest city in Syria, but also because it is the country's strategic hub. Anyone achieving control of the city would have a critical strategic advantage.

If the opposition manages to retain control of Aleppo, this will allow it to declare surrounding cities such as Idlib and Hamah to be safe zones, extending this area from the border with Turkey to Damascus.

The regime knows that if it loses Aleppo to the revolutionaries, this will mean the start of the countdown to its demise.

"The president will never accept any solution that forces him to step down, unless there is foreign military pressure that could culminate in direct military intervention," Fawaz Tallu, an opposition figure connected to the revolutionaries, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

"On the other hand, the revolutionaries may make huge advances on the ground and overthrow the regime, which is a more likely scenario. I believe we are very close to the point of no return, defined by the size of the military crackdown and the number of deaths, bringing us to a point that makes a gradual and peaceful transition of power almost impossible."

The situation in Aleppo developed quickly after the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of key locations and proposed the creation of an opposition Supreme Defence Council (SDC) that would include the leaders of military councils across the country and senior officers who have defected from the regular army.

The SDC's mission would be to establish a six-man presidential council to manage the country's military and civilian affairs during the transitional phase. The latter would be able to propose legislation and to overhaul the country's military and security agencies.

The SDC's second task would be to establish a Supreme National Council (SNC) to protect the revolution, and this would include all civilian and military bodies, as well as political forces, national figures, revolutionaries and the FSA.

Commenting on whether the armed opposition will be able to create and secure buffer zones without the use of advanced weapons, Tallu said that the "armed opposition has recently come into possession of a small number of advanced weapons, which has enabled it to offset the balance of power between the regime and the revolution."

"However, creating a secure buffer zone in the true sense requires more weaponry than is currently available, such as anti-aircraft missiles. That is why there are liberated areas that are not secured, and it will be impossible to prevent long-range rocket attacks without air cover."

The US and Europe are coordinating support for the opposition, but they are not supplying it with weapons. Observers say that Qatar and Saudi Arabia are assisting the opposition through weapons supplies and training.

Some scenarios project that the FSA will be able to take control of other regions of Syria within weeks and take down the regime through military operations, even though this would be the most destructive scenario for the state and its institutions.

Meanwhile, the western media has said that other plans are taking shape, some pertaining to preparations for military intervention outside the Security Council and others focussing on a possible peaceful transfer of power that would see Al-Assad handing power to a transitional government that would draft a new constitution, paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections after which Al-Assad would step down.

Britain's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a think tank, issued a Syria Crisis Briefing this week stating that military intervention in Syria was "inevitable" and that Western states, including Turkey, were concerned about three main issues that could force them to resort to military force in Syria.

First, there was the fear of civil or sectarian war that could spill over into neighbouring states, the briefing said. Second, there was the danger of chaos in Syria, making it into a "failed state" that would be an ideal ground for Al-Qaeda and jihadist groups. Third, there was the danger that Syria's chemical weapons arsenal could fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda or Hizbullah.

The New York Times also claimed that the US had started to put together a plan to topple Al-Assad and that the US administration had abandoned diplomatic efforts in Syria, deciding instead to increase assistance to the revolutionaries and to boost efforts to build a consensus among other countries that Al-Assad's regime must go.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently announced that after Russia and China had blocked punitive Security Council resolutions against Syria, Washington would take action outside the framework of the UN.

Commenting on the opposition's views of the crisis, Marwan Habash, a member of the opposition Regional Command and a former Syrian cabinet minister, told the Weekly that "neither the Syrians nor the Arabs alone can reach a solution to the crisis. It is up to the major countries and their political and strategic think tanks to propose solutions."

"I do not see a significant role for the political opposition inside or outside the country, except to deal with these proposals and to make some superficial changes."

Whatever the case may be, the next few weeks will be crucial ones in how the crisis unfolds, with all observers keeping a close eye on Aleppo, the fate of which could determine the path and future of the Syrian revolution.

It is unlikely that this battle will be settled in weeks, and it is certain to levy a heavy human and material toll. Whoever wins, winning will be only the first step. Should the opposition win, this will not mean that it is about to enter the presidential palace in Damascus, while a victory for the regime would not mean that it has crushed the revolution.

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